Editors’s Note: The US Women are on the ground in Germany, but how will their back four fare on the pitch?
TSG guest columnist Maura Gladys takes a look. Offer her some feedback.
A quick scan down the U.S. Women’s World Cup roster and it looks like the U.S. boasts a veteran back line. With Christie Rampone 35, the only holdover from the 1999 World Cup, Amy LePeilbet, 29, Heather Mitts, 32, Ali Krieger, 26, and Rachel Buehler,
Stephanie Cox and Becky Sauerbrunn, all 25, the average age is a seasoned 28.75. However, the experience of the group is a far different story. Take away Mitts, who will not likely see many minutes this tournament, and LePeilbet, Krieger, Buehler, Cox and Sauerbrunn collectively total 197 caps, 37 less than Rampone has amassed in her career.
Total number of world cup appearance? Six. Four for Rampone, two for Cox.
Olympic appearances? Three for Rampone, two for Mitts and one for Buehler and Cox.
But numbers only show so much. The more significant issue is whether this perceived lack of experience will negatively affect the play of the U.S.’s defense.
Short answer? No.
Slightly longer answer?
The group that Pia Sundhage puts out on the field has a few problems. But none of them have to do with inexperience, and instead deal with tactics and the skills of the personnel that Sundhage employs.
Concern over inexperience in the back is not unfounded. The United States has historically boasted a veteran back line with slow, gradual turnover, making the transition for new faces smooth and simple. Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck handed off to Kate Markgraf and Rampone, followed by Cat Whitehill.
Now, with three relatively unfamiliar names (Krieger, Buehler and LePeilbet), it’s easy to see how this can lead to concern. And, nowhere are mistakes magnified more than on defense. A flub in front of the goal on offense, while it doesn’t lead to a gain, has no net loss either. On defense, a misplayed ball, a late step, a poor clearance, can result in a deficit. To handle this, a steel nerve and the smarts to be in the right position are often prerequisites for defenders, and these traits are often developed through experience.
But Buehler, Rampone and LePeilbet have already shown that they possess the ability to hold their own, and Krieger is steadily proving her mettle. Skill-wise, each player is solid. Rampone and Buehler are a strong, aggressive leaders in the middle. LePeilbet is great at taking on players one-on-one, and she and Krieger are slowly finding a rhythm with pushing up and attacking.
Cox, for her part, is superb at lofting long balls from the back and Sauerbrunn has been a pleasant surprise with her dependability.
Nerves shouldn’t be an issue either.
Through their careers, through college, the WPS, and the National Team, these women have been put on large enough stages that jitters shouldn’t affect them. While this is the first World Cup for Krieger, LePeilbet Buehler and Sauerbrunn, they have other high-level experience, and while it can’t match a World Cup, can rival it’s atmosphere. Buehler won a gold medal in 2007 with the national team, and Krieger plays her club football in Germany, where she won a UEFA Women’s Cup Championship with FFC Frankfurt. While LePeilbet and Sauerbrunn have less international experience, they’ve spent their careers playing at the highest level of women’s soccer, from Division 1 in college to the WPS. There is no Shannon Boxx-like situation here, where a player’s first Cap is for the World Cup.
Now, that being said, there are still some kinks that need to be worked out amongst the defense. Their weaknesses lie with positioning and personnel.
Sundhage likes to employ a pretty high line, which leaves the defense susceptible to well-played through balls and long balls over the top. To counter this, the defense needs to have the smarts to stop those first passes that will spring those runs, and the speed to close down on breakaways.
While Amy LePeilbet is a whiz at reading the play and closing down on attackers, the rest of the back line has gotten caught too far up and hasn’t had the speed to recover (see May 18 vs. Japan, where the Japanese mids found several holes to poke through.) In order to be successful, the defense needs to constantly be mindful of their attackers, and be ready to track back at any moment. Depending on the opponent, Sundhage might want to consider having a few defenders play a little deeper and not risk any offensive runs.
Sundhage’s other big conundrum is who she chooses to employ on the back line, and how. Odds are, the starting back four will be Krieger on the right, LePeilbet on the left and Buehler and Rampone in the middle. LePeilbet is a natural center defender, and is slotting out to the left to accommodate Rampone, whom Sundhage prefers in the middle.
Buehler and LePeilbet are arguably the team’s two best center backs. They’re young, can read plays beautifully, and can bring a strong sense of calm do the center of play. Also, by moving LePeilbet in, that leaves left back spot open for either Cox or Sauerbrunn, creating a more dynamic, versatile back line. In insisting on starting Rampone for, one can assume, her experience, Sundhage may not be putting her best combination on the pitch.
No matter the personnel out there, the defense just lacks a shut-down mentality, a quality that you would think the number one team in the world would possess. Rampone and Buehler do a great job of keeping the defense cool and collected, but that sense of calm could often lead to complacency. Luckily, the defense has the world’s best goalkeeper Hope Solo behind them, to clean up any mistakes they might make.